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Top 10 Tips for Poetry Exam Essay Writing

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

How to answer poetry questions on exams

How to answer poetry questions on exams

Poetry Exam Essay Writing Tips for Students

English literature poetry exams challenge the ability of a student to explore, compare and comment on various poems chosen by the examiners. They usually ask for an essay to be written with particular emphasis on content, form and the effect the poem has on the reader and why.

Here are 10 tips to help you write a convincing essay and gain top marks.

Top 10 Tips For Essay Writing

1. Answer Correctly

Top priority - make sure your essay covers the relevant subject matter put before you! Many students each year fail to focus on the question being asked and write off-topic, losing loads of marks in the process.

So if you see this in your exam:

Write an analysis of the poem paying particular attention to the relationship between language and subject matter.

Your essay will concentrate on language and subject matter but you should also give as much detail as you can about form/structure, content and mood and the other relevant factors.

2. Writing Style

Be bright, clear and simple. Don't become too technical or use jargon for the sake of it, you'll lose marks and annoy the examiner. Be natural and your words will flow and make sense.

Try not to confuse the reader. Write 'the poet suggests' not 'it' or 'he' suggests or 'they' suggest.

If there are characters in the poem mention them by name, don't get third person pronouns mixed up with misuse of he and she.

3. Read the Poems Carefully

Although you may have already studied the poems during class time and know them well you should take care when reading the lines during an exam. Be sure you get the meaning of the poem as fully as you can. If there are tricky lines pay special attention to them. It's worth spending a minute or two extra on parts of a poem that are crucial to your overall evaluation.

If you prefer to make a plan as you go along, write down any ideas and thoughts that you get. A rough plan could help you structure your essay when you come to write it. You can always cross out the plan when you've finished.

4. Language

Your language should be a balance of the factual, technical and imaginative. Your essay will have to focus on the basics:

  • Mood of the poem
  • Structure/form
  • Setting
  • Imagery
  • Poetical devices
  • Meaning
  • Your response/conclusion

But by using imaginative language, concepts and connectives you can earn extra marks IF you make sure it is in the right place and is fit for purpose. For example, if the poem relates to nature in a particular way you may want to give your own response to certain lines or words in the poem, detailing the poet's technique and its effects.

5. Compare and Contrast

It's always worth while to use comparison in an essay. It helps put things into perspective and can be used to illustrate a point you want to make. If you have two or even three poems to compare you'll need to get yourself a starting point and work your way through the various aspects of analysis.

For example, you may be asked to compare sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare to a modern poem,Valentine, by a young female poet, Carol An Duffy. Both works focus on love and its consequences so there would be a natural starting point.

As you progress you can contrast imagery, language and structure using your knowledge of the sonnet form (14 lines, a rhyme scheme ababcdcdefefgg) and free verse (varied lines, no rhymes).

6. Tone, Mood, Meaning

How does the poet convey mood and meaning? What sort of language is used and in what form?

Your essay should certainly focus on tone and mood and you need to use example lines and quotes to back up your statements. For instance, the poet may have used quietly descriptive language to help emphasise an inner voice. To slow down the pace of these lines they may employ caesurae or simple punctuation.

How successful, in your opinion, has the poet been in creating this inner world? And is it connected to the outside, to something concrete? If so, how is this achieved and whose voice is used?

What meaning can you get out of the poem? Have you been directly influenced by it? Do you like the poet's approach - if yes say why, if no say why.

7. Feeling

What effect has the poem had on you? Have your feelings been stirred? Is the subject matter dear to your heart or is there something in the poem that makes you angry, sad or frustrated?

Try to place yourself in the poet's shoes, or try to become one of the voices in the poem, and describe how you would feel. Highlight specific lines or phrases that interest you or are of key importance to the poem's emotional energy.

An overview would be useful. A few lines giving the bigger picture may help you sum up your feelings.

8. Conclusion

Traditionally, this comes at the end or towards the end of your essay and is a final opinion on the poem, evidenced by quotes and comments. You may want to say if you think the poem is a success, and give reasons for it; or if you think it falls down, again, support your statement with some detail.

For example:

This poem, in free verse with occasional rhyme, focuses on the theme of family history and an individual's place relative to the father and the grandfather. It revolves around two objects, the spade and the pen and their importance within the concept of work. The slow, quiet opening couplet sets the tone...

9. Show Understanding

You must have your own words in the essay and they must send a message to the marker that says 'I understand this poem and I can interpret it fully'.

If you show understanding by using quotes, poetical devices and intelligent comparison, the marker will immediately get the impression that you know your stuff.

By adding your own ideas and imaginative material your mark will increase further, providing you have all the basics in order and keep your writing style up to scratch.

Explore is a good word to think about when analysing a poem because it conjures up a sense of adventure, which is what poetry reading is all about.

10. Proofread - when you think you've finished go back over your work with a fine tooth comb and cross out with one line any mistakes. Don't worry about corrections, the marker will ignore them unless your essay is one big mess of corrections! Don't be afraid to add extra paragraphs if you have time.

Read through again until you are satisfied that this is your best effort.

Useful Figures of Speech You May Need

Personification - when something nonhuman is given human traits or abilities. eg he looked at the moon with a wry grin and it seemed to smile back at him.

Parallelism - this occurs when related words or phrases are similar in structure and augment each other eg but let compassion flow like water, and love grow deeper than an ocean.

Litotes - an understatement which modestly/negatively denies an actual accomplishment eg it's merely a sonnet written in less than a minute, no small job for a poet.

Hyperbole - exaggeration which is hollow and overblown eg that's the millionth time I've told you not to say a thousand thankyous, you've a mouth as big as a railway tunnel!

Metaphor - a figure of speech in which you directly relate two nouns analogously eg my love is a rose or he is the passing comet.

Simile - when you compare things using the prepositions as and like eg my love is like a red rose or he's as busy as a bee.

© 2012 Andrew Spacey


Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on June 22, 2012:

Many thanks for your visit and comment. A guide, yes, that's probably what it is amongst other things! Sometimes we need a guide, or a map, or both - like when we visit a major city or new country! We don't want to get too lost?!

ThisisShe on June 22, 2012:

This is a really wonderful and comprehensive guide to understanding poetry for beginners and pros alike. Voting up. Thank you for writing this!